Cash or Card? Money While Traveling in the South of France

Image Credit: Christine Dao

Image Credit: Christine Dao

Doubling up on posts today, since I missed one last week. I’m currently bumming around the South of France, about a third of the way through a five-week Europe tour. I started in the UK and I’ll make my way through Italy later.

This is my first time spending this much time abroad. My first Euro trip to the UK lasted about 10 days, and my second one to France lasted a little over a week (it was supposed to be two weeks, but my grandma had passed away and I had to cut the trip short to make it back to Texas for her funeral).

This is also my first solo abroad trip, so I have to figure out some things on my own that I used to rely on others for—like how to pay for stuff.

Cash Is King

During a day trip to Eze Village, I met and chatted a bit with two ladies from the US who were in the South of France for a couple days. They asked me where I was changing my cash, and I said I wasn’t.

Taking a cue from Rick Steves, I’ve mostly been getting cash from bank ATMs (not random, stand-alone cash machines that appear shady). I had checked with my bank before leaving the US, and they have a much better fee (less than 1%) than the money exchangers. Plus, I’ve noticed (at least in Monte Carlo) that bank ATMs are more plentiful than money exchangers, and they are accessible all the time.

Not only has it been simple to get cash, it has been worlds easier to pay with cash and coins than with cards. Most stores, especially grocery stores, have limits before you can use your credit card. Coins have been the best way to pay for bus tariffs as well (bus drivers will glare at you with contempt if you try to pay with anything larger than a 5 Euro note–and if you speak to them in French when they happen to be Italian).

As an odd and added “bonus,” since I am paying for basically everything with cash, I am acutely aware of how much money I’m spending every day. It has been helpful to plan my day based on whatever happens to be (or not be) in my wallet at the time, rather than mindlessly swiping a card everywhere. (This may or may not be a practice I maintain when I return home.)

Credit Card Travel Notifications

Something else I’m figuring out about money and traveling in another country is credit card travel notifications. I’ve never set one before, and I didn’t know until a couple days ago that I could do it easily online.

For this trip, I brought with me Debit Card (for cash at ATMs), Favorite Card (my credit card I use at home, but since it charges 3% on foreign transactions, I brought it as back up), and Travel Card (my credit card that does not charge any foreign transaction fee and that I was going to use primarily for this trip).

I checked with my bank before I left the US to see if I needed any travel notifications to use Debit Card in the countries I will be in. They said “no” but that I should check my balance frequently and call them right away if I see any suspicious charges or withdrawals.

I, however, did not check with my credit cards. And that was a mistake. I used Travel Card at a coffee shop in Surrey and to buy a museum ticket. After that, the card stopped working. A couple days passed before I could get Travel Card’s company on the phone to let them know that the international charges were from me. But they had already elevated the case to their fraud team and were in the process of canceling my card.

Talk about a pain. But I suppose they were doing their job at trying to keep my account safe, and I can’t really fault them for that. But I had to cut up Travel Card right away and never use it again. And since I was traveling, I couldn’t tell the company where to send my new card while I was abroad. So, I just had them send it home, where it should be waiting for me when I get back.

Fortunately, faithful old Favorite Card was still with me, and I hadn’t used it for anything yet. I went online to set a travel notification and (since I am a little paranoid by nature), I called customer service to make sure that they knew I was out of the country. While cash is great for paying for just about everything, places such as hotels will only deal with credit cards, and I had to make sure at least one of mine was fully functioning.

So yes. For future reference, I must make sure to turn on credit card travel notifications before leaving home and to have at least one back up card just in case.

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